The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A legal test for Texas home-schoolers: Do you have to prove you’ve learned something?

In an empty office at the family’s El Paso motorcycle dealership, Laura McIntyre says her nine kids were learning.

McIntyre’s brother-in-law says they were singing and playing instruments. Learning was unnecessary, one of the children allegedly said, because “they were going to be raptured.”

The two will take their dispute to the Texas Supreme Court next week, in a case that involves family feuds, competing legal complaints, claims about the Second Coming, a 17-year-old who ran away from home so she could go to school and a fundamental question that could impact all 300,000 or so children home-schooled in Texas.: Where is the line between parents’ right to oversee their children’s education and the state’s duty to make sure children are actually getting one?

[Student’s home-schooling highlights debate on Va. law]

Laura and Michael McIntyre have been teaching their children since 2004, according to court documents, when they withdrew the kids from a local private school. Under Texas law, they weren’t required to register with state officials, enroll in an accredited program, administer standardized tests or teach a pre-approved curriculum. The Texas Homeschool Coalition calls the state “one of the best in the U.S.” for home educators.

“Here, people are still free,” the group says on their Web site.

The only requirement is that parents ensure their children receive a “bona fide” education. What that means — and how it should be enforced — are not clearly defined.

[In most states, you don’t need a high school diploma to home-school kids]

For the McIntyres, the challenge came in January 2006, when the local school district received an anonymous complaint that the children were not being educated. The district’s attendance officer, Mark Mendoza, met with the children’s grandparents, who said they worried about their grandkids’ education. Michael McIntyre’s brother, Tracy, said he never saw the kids reading books, doing math, or using a computer or other school equipment, though he did overhear one of the kids say they didn’t need to do schoolwork because they were waiting to be “raptured.” One of the children, then 17-year-old Tori, had actually run away from home so she could “attend school,” Mendoza testified. Her parents refused to provide information about her education so far to the local high school, and she was placed in a freshman class with 14 and 15-year-olds.

What followed was 18 months of back and forth between the McIntyres and the school district. Administrators asked for documentation, any documentation, of what the McIntyre children were learning. All they got was a letter from a Home School Legal Defense Association attorney saying that the family was “in full compliance” and would not be providing any more information on the matter. In another exchange, Laura McIntyre said she did not feel it would be “right” to submit documentation about her children’s schooling, according to court documents.

Laura McIntyre has since said that she was teaching her kids using “A Beka,” a curriculum published by Pensacola Christian College that teaches “from a Christian perspective.”

Mendoza filed truancy complaints — which were ultimately dismissed when Tori and her grandparents declined to testify on the matter, an El Paso assistant district attorney said. Then the McIntyres responded with a lawsuit of their own, alleging that the school district, its superintendent and Mendoza violated the Texas Education Code, their right to religious freedom and the U.S. Constitution by investigating the family’s home schooling. They also claimed that their relatives had brought up the truancy complaints because of a separate dispute over the now-defunct family-run motorcycle business.

An Texas state appeals court ruled in the school district’s favor, finding that parents “do not have an absolute constitutional right to home school,” and that there is nothing in state law that precludes an attendance officer like Mendoza from investigating whether home-schooled children are actually learning. Indeed, Chief Justice Ann Crawford McClure said, quoting a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, there is “no doubt as to the power of a state, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education.”

The McIntyres appealed that ruling, and now the case will go before Texas’s all-Republican Supreme Court, the Associated Press reported.

According to the AP, all but one of the McIntyre children have grown up and are no longer being taught by their parents. But Laura McIntyre said she is “looking for a little clarification” as she continues to teach her youngest child.

The state supreme court’s ruling could have broad ramifications for the ever-growing ranks of home-schooled children in Texas. As it stands, the state already has some of country’s laxest laws on home schooling. (Though, in court filings, the McIntyres allege that the El Paso school district is biased against Christians and has engaged in a “startling assertion of sweeping governmental power” by investigating their curriculum, according to the AP.)

In 1995, the state’s education commissioner issued a memo stating that parents are only obligated to provide “a written statement of assurance” that their home school meets state standards — a state supreme court decision the year before found that parents need not submit to home visits or have their curriculum approved. The July appointment of Donna Bahorich, who home-schooled her children for several years before sending them to private schools, to lead the state’s Board of Education was seen by some as evidence that the state “sides with home-schoolers,” as the Austin Chronicle put it.

Home schooling is increasingly popular in Texas, which is home to more than one sixth of the nation’s 1.7 million home-schooled students. Each year about 20,000 Texas secondary students leave the public school system in favor of home schools, the Austin American-Statesman reported, citing data from the Texas Education Agency.

If the court rules in the McIntyres’ favor, Texas’s rules could become even more favorable to home educators, effectively preventing local school districts from taking any kind of measures to investigate whether their schools are “bona fide.”

Mark Tilley of the Texas Association of School Boards, which wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the El Paso school district, told the Austin American-Statesman that would be bad news for school district officials like Mendoza trying to ensure that kids are being educated.

“You shouldn’t have to face a potential lawsuit for doing your job to check in on kids,” he said.

Sydney Clark, a 17-year-old home-schooler from Austin, isn’t sure what she thinks.

“I don’t want regulation on my family and I don’t think that anybody should have regulations, except when there are people who take advantage,” North told the Austin newspaper. “If everyone were doing the right thing, it wouldn’t be an issue.”